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The Daily Review, Tues., April 26

Wonder, by Robert Sawyer Add to ...

Okay, new rule. Effective today, Canadian reviews of Robert J. Sawyer and his fiction should no longer begin with "Robert J. Sawyer is a Canadian science-fiction writer" or any variation on same. The fact is, Sawyer is one of Canada's bestselling writers, winner of numerous prizes, with a high profile internationally and an exhaustive online presence. If you don't know him by now, you should, and no single sentence summary in a review is going to help.

At long last, Sawyer's much anticipated finale to his WWW trilogy has arrived. Wonder completes the interwoven stories of 15-year-old Caitlin Decter and Webmind, the Internet-based life form she discovered through a retinal implant that allowed her to "see" data streams within the World Wide Web in Wake (2009) and that became a self-determined entity in its own right in Watch (2010). In Wake and Watch, Sawyer painstakingly, yet effortlessly, laid the multifaceted groundwork that comes to fruition in Wonder.

A myriad of storylines ebb and flow through the three books: from the machinations and repercussions of the Chinese government's steps to restrict all Internet access, to the personal development of Hobo, a Chimpanzee-Bonobo hybrid, and in turn his handlers; from Caitlin's own coming-of-age story and the domestic drama it is cocooned within, to the reactions and actions toward Webmind by the U.S. National Security Agency's WATCH (Web Activity Threat Containment Headquarters). Through it all, Webmind's unique perspective, as a non-emotional, non-biological entity, evolves and grows, shaped by and reacting to the sum of human knowledge and behaviour.

Whereas in Wake and Watch, Webmind was developing awareness and learning, and relied largely on Caitlin and others to teach him, in Wonder he takes on a very different, more significant role. Able to directly connect to and communicate with billions of people around the world, he announces his presence and becomes involved in individual lives. He advises on a personal level, and, being able to draw research together from disparate sources from his unique position within the World Wide Web, is at the same time able to solve global issues, sharing solutions in his personal blog and on his Twitter feed. The reactions are, of course, divided. Some see Webmind as a saviour for humankind; others as the end of everything as we know it. The repercussions are immense.

Drawing from and distilling a vast pool of scientific, mathematical, political and social theories, Sawyer educates readers on such topics as games theory, government conspiracy, scientific responsibility and modern morality, while encouraging them to ask questions. While certainly thought-provoking, Sawyer is occasionally didactic, even moralizing, in his writing; it is clear that he is comfortable with using his work as a soapbox for some issues, including changing societal views on publicly revealing personal information, and prejudice and acceptance.

With so many storylines and perspectives, Sawyer runs the risk of being confusing, yet he manages to not only make each book work individually, but with Wonder, has adroitly drawn together seemingly disparate threads. That said, the restrictions of the book's length and the format of a trilogy don't allow enough time to follow many of the storylines to wholly satisfying ends, though they are all addressed and given closure to at least some degree.

Once again, Sawyer shows mastery in his ability to move between complex scientific concepts and genuine and realistic characters. Shifting between perspectives, from Caitlin or her family to a hacker in China to government employees in China and the United States, Sawyer explores the implications and opportunities presented by Webmind's evolution and by extension serves up a healthy dose of social commentary and critique.

As with Watch, Wonder is written so that readers do not have to read the previous books to be able to follow the story, which is fast-paced and immediately engaging. Events from the previous book are smoothly introduced as needed, without detracting from the flow of the story. That said, there are nuances, themes and subtleties that flow beautifully when the trilogy is read as a whole, and the ability to take it as a work in its entirety, to savour the plot and allow the intricacies of the theories and concepts to meld in one's mind, is definitely the preferred approach.

Cori Dusmann is an educator and writer living in Victoria.

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